One of the biggest sporting events of the past few months was the European Champions League Final, held at Wembley Stadium on Saturday 28 May, 2011. After months of pool and elimination matches, the two undisputed power clubs of world football faced off in the final.
Manchester United, managed by the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson for the past 24 years, had just won their 12th English Premier League title in the past 19 seasons.
Their opponents, FC Barcelona had just won their 3rd consecutive La Liga title (the Spanish equivalent of the EPL) to make it 10 domestic league titles in the same 19 season span.
Although Manchester United bill themselves as the world’s most popular football club, Barcelona held the upper hand in Europe with three Champions League titles since 1991/92 compared to Manchester United’s two titles in the same period.
Manchester United boasted English football’s most valuable property, striker Wayne Rooney, whereas Barcelona’s squad contained Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, the top 3 place-getters in this year’s FIFA Balloon D’Or (the award for world footballer of the year) including the winner for the past two seasons, the incomparable Argentinean, Messi.
The showdown between the two super-clubs was expected to be a closely fought battle of skill and tactics.
The reality was somewhat different.
Barcelona shredded their opponent. The match ended up being a clinic, with the 3-1 scoreline flattering a totally out-classed Manchester United.
The key match statistics say it all:
Shots on target
Time in possession
These stats demonstrate an astonishingly huge gap between two teams that, on paper at least, appeared evenly matched before the match began.
So did Barcelona achieve such superiority over a very formidable foe?
Well it wasn’t money. Both clubs have very deep pockets.
Manchester United generate the largest football-specific revenue of any team in the world (AUD$440 million) and Barcelona just over-took the New York Yankees to claim the #1 spot in Global Sports Salaries Survey’s 2010’s Highest Average Player Salary with each Barcelona player earning, on average, a whopping AUD$8 million (equivalent) per season.
Football is now a multi-billion dollar global sport where players don’t just move clubs, they move countries in order to ply their trade in the best league that they can and maximise their earnings before their skills wane and their knees give way.
The days of players having a long professional career with their local club at the top level are long gone … or are they?
Let’s look at both clubs a bit more closely.
Although each club had a squad chock full of superstars, the Spanish club was different in a very significant way. In their Champions League starting XI, Barcelona fielded 7 Spanish-qualified players compared to the 3 English-qualified players lining up in the Manchester United starting XI.
And here’s where the real difference is uncovered; six of the Barcelona team (including the aforementioned Messi, Xavi and Iniesta) had been developed via the club’s youth academy (La Masia), compared to Manchester United’s one youth academy-developed player, Ryan Giggs, who is not even English.
Barcelona’s foundation to ongoing success is found in the teaching of the La Masia academy. As Graham Hunter, writing about FC Barcelona earlier this year in The Age, stated:
‘At (FC Barcelona) they believe it is more effective to teach raw talents a defined doctrine than buy brilliance every season or two and try to fuse different playing styles into a cohesive whole.’
The critical component of the La Masia success for Barcelona is not just in the skills of the players that graduate from the academy (and what skills they have) but in their whole attitude to the game.
To quote Hunter again ‘(the academy trainees) must play the 4-3-3 system, learn to cherish and use the ball well and must play with attacking flair’.
As inspirational Barcelona captain Xavi says, ‘When you train La Masia as a kid there are phrases drummed into you which still flit through my head during matches 19 years later’.
And there you have the reinforcement of the key principle that every highly successful current or former recruitment company owner knows – long term success comes through developing both the skills and the culture of committed team players.
It’s a rocky road of high expectations, deep pockets and frequent disappointment when you rely too much on buying in ‘big billers’ (or even average billers) to meet the ‘I need more consultants’ pressure that most recruitment owners experience. These recruits might put some decent billings on the board but, more importantly, are they having the right impact on your team culture?
Just imagine how much pressure professional football clubs feel when results aren’t going their way. Typically the passionate fans demand an open cheque book to recruit the latest ‘hot prospect’.
Barcelona went through a very unsuccessful six year period between 1999 and 2006, but they stuck with their academy philosophy as a long term, sustainable way back to the top.
Iniesta, Xavi and Messi arrived at the Barcelona La Masia academy when they were 11, 12 and 13, respectively.
Each of these teenagers were in no way a sure bet for Barcelona, with Messi having the added challenge of moving from Argentina, when most boys of his age would be intimidated enough dealing with the transition from primary school to high school in the same suburb.
Yet on that Saturday night, two weeks ago, Barcelona’s commitment to growing its own skills and culture paid massive dividends.
FC Barcelona not just won the match but in doing so set a new standard of play that must have daunted their Spanish and European opposition watching on and contemplating the 2011/12 season ahead.
And with Lionel Messi’s 25th birthday still two weeks away, who knows what this champion team may achieve in the next few years.
Build or buy? What’s your long term plan for sustained success?